It is 25 years since the divisive tour of 1981 began - an event that set mate against mate and divided a nation.

The Springbok class of 2006 is in New Zealand with the blessing of the South African nation ranging from Nelson Mandela to the vagrants in the subway of Cape Town station.

The Boks of 1981 could at best claim 15 per cent national support, with Mandela and the vagrants all shouting for the protesters and the All Blacks (in that order) - though the 49-0 debacle in Brisbane might just temporarily see the 15 per cent being rivalled. Last Saturday more than a few of today's Springboks might have wished the 1981 Australian No-Landing Policy for planes from South Africa was still in place.

I am sure there is little to choose between the two teams - as human beings. Individuals were never the target. Rather the target was the cruel and unjust policies of the apartheid regime that discriminated on the basis of skin colour - "an extraordinary human disaster that lasted far too long" to quote Mandela.

Black Africa's ire for the New Zealand Government's perceived collaboration with the apartheid regime was ignited in the '70s. There was a brief glimmer of hope in 1973 when Prime Minister Norman Kirk followed his conscience and prevented the 1973 Springboks from touring. But all of this was undone when, amidst the bloodshed and rising death toll of the 1976 Soweto uprising, the All Blacks went to South Africa with the blessing of Robert Muldoon's Government.

This led to the first major boycott of any Olympic Games when Africa displayed its frustration with New Zealand at the July 1976 Montreal Olympics.

A year later New Zealand signed up to the Commonwealth Leaders Gleneagles Agreement which accepted "the urgent duty of each of the Governments to vigorously combat the evil of apartheid by withholding any form of support for, and taking every practical step to discourage sporting contact by their nationals with South Africa".

The 1981 tour was seen not only as a betrayal of the Gleneagles Agreement but defiant support by Muldoon's Government for the apartheid regime. Fifteen years later at a state banquet in Cape Town, a former member of Muldoon's Cabinet and then Prime Minister, Jim Bolger, said, "The tour was a mistake. In the final analysis, New Zealanders came to a more mature appreciation that we could not isolate ourselves - not pursue our domestic preoccupations as if we were divorced from a broader responsibility to promote racial equality and good governance elsewhere."

In spite of the Muldoon Government, New Zealanders have had a long and proud history of opposition to apartheid. That opposition was one, which during the painful years of apartheid, those of us in the liberation struggle for a better life for all South Africans valued dearly. During the long, grim period of oppression, our spirits were lifted by the solidarity shown by New Zealand organisations such as the churches, Hart, Care and many others.

Given the fanatical religious significance of rugby to the majority of the apartheid regime supporters, opposition in New Zealand to All Black-Springbok encounters had a unique impact inside South Africa. That opposition, initially incomprehensible, became an important force in convincing many that South Africa had no alternative but to adapt.

The cancellation of tours, and the opposition to apartheid provoked by events such as those which occurred in 1981, led many in the apartheid regime to conclude that a negotiated settlement was essential. One need no greater example than arch conservative Danie Craven meeting the ANC in exile or Louis Luyt campaigning for the release of Mandela - not because they were ardent human rights campaigners, but solely to heal the heartache of being isolated from playing ball with the other kids in the street.

To South African exiles abroad, to all political prisoners inside South Africa and to those South African political parties, civic organisations and individuals who struggled against apartheid, such protests were a source of great inspiration. As Mandela so eloquently said during his state visit in 1995, "The sun shone into the dark cells of Robin Island and transformed the oppressive Soweto dungeons of despair into beacons of hope."

The story of New Zealanders' opposition to apartheid is a story of commitment to the highest ideals of internationalism. The anti-apartheid movement in New Zealand was enterprising, committed and courageous. Often campaigning in a hostile environment, it was responsible for achieving significant victories. While there were anti-apartheid demonstrations in many parts of the world, few assumed the magnitude that those of 1981 did in New Zealand. Masses of ordinary people got involved and that has special significance.

From a South African perspective, the 1981 Springbok tour was a story of hope. It chronicles the power of ordinary people to defeat complicity in an evil system.

We must not live in the past, but we must never allow ourselves to forget the bittersweet lessons of the past. To do this is to invite old evils to reappear.

To all those sports-mad ordinary New Zealanders who had no desire to be dragged into the political issues of South Africa and simply wanted to enjoy a good game with the old enemy, I respect your views and sincerely regret the infringement of your rights.

To the institution which believed that politics should be kept out of sport and that it should be allowed to engage no matter the amount of innocent blood on the enemy hands, it is with some difficulty that I try to comprehend your purist view. It is with even greater difficulty that I am trying to understand your rationale in blatantly excluding your indigenous people to appease the regime.

I do however believe the time has come to heal whatever wounds might still exist and close the chapter on any unfinished business.

To all those New Zealanders who joined hands with us in South Africa, and who campaigned for so long and so effectively we salute you.

From 16,000km away we never knew the high price you paid as a nation. For your scars we say sorry, for our liberty we say thank you. Together we were part of one of the great struggles of the 20th century.

Finally to the cynics I would say, yes South Africa still has many challenges especially in the area of education, health, safety and security, HIV/Aids and poverty. However, in the 12 years of democracy (3 per cent of the time since colonisation in 1652) more than 10 million people have shifted from tin sheds and plastic sheeting to little homes they can call their own. Access to running water and electricity has more than doubled for the previously disadvantaged.

A Gallup International poll found 84 per cent of South Africans believe the country holds out a happy future for all races and 80 per cent of business owners are optimistic about the year ahead.

We could have been a Rwanda or a Bosnia. We could have chosen statutory revenge as per Nuremberg, but we chose truth and reconciliation.

"Never again shall it be that this beautiful land will experience the oppression of one by another and suffer the indignity of being the skunk of the world" - Nelson Mandela at his inauguration.

* Gregory Fortuin is Honorary Consul for the Republic of South Africa and a former New Zealand Race Relations Conciliator.